I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Carnitas are the undisputed king of the taco cart. The Mexican answer to American pulled pork, at their best they're moist, juicy, and ultra porky, with the rich, tender texture of a French confit, and riddled with plenty of well-browned, crisp edges. Traditionally, they're made by simmering chunks of juicy pork in rendered lard inside a large copper vat (a cazo) until tender and crisp.
At home, I've been making them for years using my oven-based recipe, in which you pack cubes of pork into a baking dish, add just enough fat to cover, then slow-cook it in a low oven before shredding and crisping the meat in a pan under the broiler or on the stovetop. It's a fantastic and easy method, but I'd venture to say it's even easier using a sous vide cooker. For one thing, you don't have to heat up the oven, or worry about leaving it on all afternoon.
Using sous vide, there's also no real chance of overcooking. With a slow-cooking, extra-forgiving cut like pork shoulder, which is high in both connective tissue and fat, even if you overshoot by half a day, your results are still going to be incredible. I know: I tested it to find out!
The other great thing about cooking sous vide is that, because the pork is sealed inside a bag, there's no need to add any extra fat whatsoever. The fat that renders from the pork shoulder as it cooks gets distributed around the bag, essentially allowing the pork to tenderize in its own juices. The result is extra-moist carnitas, time after time.
Temperature and Timing
Just as with American-style barbecue pork cooked sous vide, the temperature at which you cook the meat can have an effect on both the finished texture and the overall cooking time. The goal is to break down tough connective tissue—mainly collagen—into rich, velvety gelatin. This takes both time and heat, and the hotter you cook, the less time it takes.
On the flip side, the hotter you cook, the more moisture the pork will expel. Sure, that moisture gets trapped in the bag, but as soon as the bag is opened and the pork removed, it'll drain away. Pork cooked at higher temperatures will come out drier, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: Cooking sous vide at a higher temperature still produces pork that is plenty moist, and it will have a more traditional texture.
These photographs were taken of pork treated with a cochinita pibil–style marinade, which is why it's red on the exterior. In this case, the texture comes out the same regardless of the marinade. Take a look.
At 145°F (63°C), pork will take at least 24 hours and up to 36 hours to really become tender. Even so, it retains an almost steak-like resilience and juiciness. Rather than shredding apart, like pulled pork, it comes apart in large, juicy chunks. I really enjoy this texture, especially if the pork is left in largish chunks or slabs and seared in a skillet, or even cubed and threaded onto skewers and finished on the grill.
At 165°F (74°C), pork will take a minimum of 12 and up to 24 hours to tenderize. Once it does, it'll have an easily shreddable texture, but the individual shredded pieces will remain moist and juicy. This is probably my favorite temperature for making taco or torta fillings, as the meat can be used just like traditional carnitas but is even juicier.
At 185°F (85°C), pork will take about eight hours, or even a little less, to tenderize. The texture will be very similar to that of traditional carnitas—easily shreddable and reasonably moist. (I used to think standard carnitas were incredibly moist, until I tried sous vide carnitas.) This is a good temperature for anyone who wants a really traditional texture, but would like to make the process just a little more foolproof and streamlined.
Cooking Temperatures for Sous Vide Carnitas
|145°F (63°C) for 24 to 36 hours||Very tender and moist; not very shreddable. Better for cubing or searing as slabs.|
|165°F (74°C) for 12 to 24 hours||Moist and easy to shred with your hands or forks|
|185°F (85°C) for 8 to 16 hours||Traditional texture that shreds naturally|
How to Make Sous Vide Carnitas, Step by Step
Step 1: Slice the Pork
I like to start with boneless pork shoulder. I tried using whole shoulders, which works reasonably well, but you get better flavor penetration if you first cut the pork into thick slabs. About four pounds is enough to serve eight to 12 people once the meat is cooked. You can easily make a half batch, but carnitas freeze extremely well, so think about making the full order!
Step 2: Toss With Aromatics
Next, toss the pork with some aromatics: a roughly chopped onion, a few cloves of garlic, a split orange (and its juice), a cinnamon stick, and some bay leaves. If you like, you can also add a couple whole cloves at this point—I prefer to omit them from my carnitas, as they can get overpowering. It's also important to add a good amount of salt at this stage, which will help season the meat deeply and help it retain more moisture as it cooks.
Step 3: Bag the Meat
Transfer the pork and aromatics to vacuum bags and seal them, pressing them into a single layer as much as possible. I recommend using actual vacuum sealer bags if you'll be cooking with a sous vide setup for extended periods of time, but you can also use heavy-duty zipper-lock bags by double-bagging the meat and using the water displacement method to remove air. If you do use this method, make sure that the top part of the outer bag (the part that seals) stays above the water line in order to avoid any leaks during cooking.
Step 4: Cook!
Preheat your sous vide cooker to the desired temperature according to the chart above, then lower the meat into the water. If you didn't manage to get all the air out of the bag, or if your pork is particularly fatty, the bag might have a tendency to float a little. You can easily keep it submerged by placing a wet kitchen towel on top of the bag, or by using a large binder clip to secure a metal spoon or knife to the bottom of the bag as a weight.
Let the meat cook for the desired time, making sure that the water level doesn't drop below the minimum line on your device. (Covering the opening with aluminum foil or covering the surface of the water with Ping-Pong balls can help prevent water loss during long cooking periods.)
Once the meat is cooked, you can proceed immediately to the next step, or let it cool and store it in the fridge or freezer, directly in the bag, until you're ready to serve. In the fridge, it'll last at least five days (and more likely many weeks), while in the freezer it should last months to years, depending on the quality of the bag and seal you've used.
Step 5: Shred
When you're ready to serve, open up the bag and empty the contents into a bowl, discarding all of the aromatics. If there's a ton of liquid (or jellied liquid, if you've chilled the meat), you can reserve it separately, reduce it, and blend it into your salsa; use it as a base for a pan sauce for another dish; or add it to a pot of soup for a shot of flavor. Or, just discard it if you don't feel like fiddling with a half cup of flavorful, gelatin-packed pork liquid. (Then make sure to scold yourself for pouring flavor down the drain.)
Shred the pork by hand or with forks if you want it shredded, or cut it into chunks, slabs, or cubes if you'd prefer one of those shapes. The meat will be very forgiving and will work however you decide to treat it at this point.
Step 6: Crisp It
The final step is to crisp the pork. There are a few ways you can do this. The easiest is to spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet and place it a few inches under a preheated broiler. Keep an eye on it, and flip the pieces once they start to get brown and crisp.
Repeat this step until they're browned and crispy all over, and you're ready to serve. Alternatively, you can heat the carnitas directly in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, giving them a toss, a flip, and a stir every now and then, until they're crisp all over.
The final method works only if you've cooked the meat at a lower temperature (145 or 165°F) and cut it into slabs or large cubes: Sear the carnitas in a cast iron skillet or on a hot grill, flipping them once or twice to brown them on all surfaces. This is a fun and unique way to serve carnitas, if only because it only works if you've used the sous vide method.
However you serve your carnitas, you're going to want to provide plenty of napkins, because this is the kind of stuff best eaten straight from your fingertips.